Monthly Archives: February 2011

Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement

A new partnership between the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was announced last week. From the Feb. 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

In honor of National Engineers Week, the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. (EIC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have announced a new partnership to promote careers in science, engineering and technology. The partnership serves to enhance EIC’s ongoing Ready on the S.E.T. and … Action! program in collaboration with The Boeing Company, by providing additional expertise in science and technology to the entertainment industry creative community under the auspices of EIC’s First Draft brand.

I’m not familiar with the EIC or its ‘Ready on the S.E.T. and … Action!’ program but here’s a video featuring Pauley Perrette (from the US tv show NCIS) in one of the program’s public service announcements designed to encourage girls to enter the field of engineering,

This new program the ‘First Draft’ is a little different,

In addition to offering experts to writers, producers, directors, performers and creative executives on any and all areas of science, engineering and technology on-demand, the First Draft effort with NSF’s Science Scene program in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs will also provide publications with depiction suggestions to creators, as well as conducting topic briefings. The first such briefing will take place in July, at the start of the television [tv] writing season. The half-day event, described as a sort-of “writer’s boot camp,” will offer up scientists and engineers in a variety of cutting-edge fields that may be useful to story development and technical guidance. Topics are expected to include such areas as nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, bioengineering (including artificial limbs and implants), forensics (including DNA analysis and miniaturized lab techniques), as well as artificial life and genetic engineering-and exciting tie-ins to aerospace engineering, among others.

If I read this correctly, they are running a workshop prior to any writing or production work being done. In other words, they’re getting to the writers and producers before the tv episodes are written or conceptualized. That means the usual order of writers and producers getting an idea for a story, finding an expert either to vet it from a technical/scientific perspective, and going into production is reversed. Now, the story idea will spring from the science and the technology. In a sense, you could say the ‘product placement’ (science and technology) drives the story or, alternatively, you could say it’s a neat piece of social engineering.

I’ve been thinking about social engineering especially on the heels of the ‘Watson’ computer triumph on Jeopardy, the tv quiz program, after three days (Feb. 14 – 16, 2011) of competing against humans (mentioned in my Feb. 14, 2011 posting). Shortly (Feb. 24, 2011) after Watson won, IBM (Watson’s creator) announced a collaboration with the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine on a project that could bring Watson into the examining room with you.  From the article by Frank D. Roylance on,

They have begun work on merging the speech recognition and question-answering skills of Watson – the computer that beat two humans on “Jeopardy!” last week – with the vast stores of clinical knowledge and analytical skills in the medical profession.

If it all works out, the end product could be a “Dr. Watson” in hospitals and physicians’ offices

“In the future, I see the software sitting with the physician as he is interviewing the patient, and processing information in real time, and correlating that with the patient’s medical record and other records,” said Dr. Eliot Siegel, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Lab at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Watson, he said, “has incredible potential to revolutionize how we interact with medical records; to be a really valuable assistant to me; to read all the literature pertinent to my practice … to always be at my side and help suggest problems, things in the medical records I need to know about; to suggest diagnoses and treatment options I may not have considered,” he said.

I found the timing interesting. First Watson demonstrates that it can think (it beat humans on a quiz that requires some semantic sophistication)  in a fairly non-threatening way (the mistakes the computer made were odd, not like humans at all and therefore funny). Then within one week or so, an announcement is made about using Watson (some day) in the doctor’s office.

IBM made much of the fact that the computer was named after the company founder, Paul Watson, and not Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson. Still, I’m sure if the company founder’s name had been Zloklikovits or another  name considered challenging for one reason or another, they wouldn’t have used the company founder’s name.

I’m pointing out that there’s a great deal of planning and money on the line and it’s a good idea to be critical (i.e. not accept unthinkingly) of our entertainment from time to time.

Interview with Vive Nano’s CTO, Darren Anderson, and CEO Keith Thomas

I first mentioned the Canadian company, Vive Nano, in my Nov. 9, 2009 posting when it received $3.8M from the Ontario government through that province’s Innovation Demonstration Fund. They’ve been mentioned here since (June 25, 2010 posting about their Frost & Sullivan Technology Innovation Award and Oct. 11, 2010 posting about their marketing efforts in India) and, after my good intentions ran out, I finally got a chance to interview Darren Anderson, Vive Nano’s  Chief Technology Officer and (ETA Mar.1.11) Keith Thomas, President and Chief Executive Officer.

(a) Can you tell me a little bit about why the company is called Vive Nano and give me a brief company history, e.g. was it a spin-off from a university; how many founders are there; how did you get to know each other, etc.?

The company was founded by 6 scientists at the University of Toronto.  The scientists had been working together for years and a number had participated in a course called Entrepreneurship 101, which is run by an Ontario-funded organization called MaRS.  [You can find MaRS here.] We decided to pursue a non-traditional route, instead of joining academia or a research lab – and we have not looked back since.  We spun the company out of the university in 2006 and it really got going in 2007 when the full management team joined and outside investment was brought in.

We chose the name Vive Nano because we felt it would work well across cultures.  When we heard the word vive we thought of life; we felt that it had a strong, vibrant and forward thinking feel.   And we felt that it mirrored our company values:  smart, open and responsible.  We strive to be smart in how we execute our work, open to new ideas and responsible in the application of what we do for the greater good.

(b) The Vive Nano website states that your main focus is developing products for the ‘catalyst’ and ‘crop protection’ industries. Could you give me a little more detail about that? For example, I associate crop protection with pesticides, is that what you mean?

A large part of our work is on improved crop protection formulations that can positively impact crop yields and lower environmental impact.  We work with bioinert and biodegradable polymers in place of the solvents currently used to deliver crop protection products.  We are developing products, including pesticides that have the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals used by farmers, leading to cleaner air, cleaner soil and cleaner water.  We’re enthusiastic about working in crop protection because the safety standards are very stringent and we’re working with partners with tremendous resources and commitment to ensuring product safety.  Vive Nano also works with catalysts, specifically on materials that help to improve the air we breathe and water we drink.

For our efforts, Vive Nano has been recognized as one of Canada’s Top 10 companies, as a leading green technology company by Deloitte, as one of the 2009 Green 15™, and by Canadian Business magazine as the winner of Canada’s Clean15 competition.  In addition, Vive Nano has received other market recognition including:

·       Frost & Sullivan North American Technology of the Year Award – 2010
·       Next 10 Emerging Cleantech Leaders Award Winner – 2009
·       Ontario Premier’s Cleantech Mission to India

(c)  ‘Partnering on projects’ is also mentioned on the website. Could you explain how what you mean by partnering and what kinds of projects and products you have or are currently partnering on?

Vive Nano partners with a range of companies, from small Ontario businesses to Fortune 500 firms.  We develop the products in conjunction with our partners, who provide project goals and market access.  We are not able to talk about most of our projects, but one of our key projects is to reduce the use of solvents in delivering crop protection products so that the products are more environmentally friendly.  We also have smaller projects to develop advanced glass coatings and to clean water.

(d) The website features a description of Vive Nano Product Stewardship where you state: “… prioritization process to ensure product information for products with known toxic effects, physical hazards or potential consumer exposure is provided to our stakeholders in a timely manner.” Could you give some examples of you how provide this information since you sell products such as nano silver, nano cerium oxide, nano zinc oxide, and nano magnetite, all of which, by the way, are subject to a ‘call for information regarding testing procedures’ by the State of California’s Dept. of Toxic Substances Control.

We are members of Responsible Care® and are committed communicating information about our materials to all of our stakeholders, including our employees, our customers, our collaborators and the general public.   We make Product Stewardship Sheets for our materials available, which provide a product description, the chemical identity, uses, and any known health or environmental effects or potential for exposure, as well as risk management information.

We recognize that the state of knowledge relating to health and environmental effects of nanotechnology is in its infancy and as a result we are taking a conservative approach with respect to the design and manufacture of our materials. We continually monitor legislative requirements regarding nanomaterials and aim to exceed all current guidelines with respect to occupational health and waste streams, including water and air emissions.  Much of the concern surrounding exposure to nanomaterials is regarding aerosols, thus we endeavour to work with our materials in liquid form whenever possible.

As I mentioned at the start, we want to be responsible in what we do for the greater good.  We are working with the Canadian National Institute of Nanotechnology in Alberta on a federally funded multi-million dollar project to ensure that all of our products we develop are safe throughout their product lifetime.  We are also participating in a McGill University study to look at product safety.

I’m going to shift focus with these next questions:

(e) Vive Nano was featured in an Oct. 27, 2010 guest column written by Hari Venkatacharya on the subject of Canadian technology firms and the Indian market. Is this involvement part of a larger strategic focus on international markets and/or where there specific reasons for focusing on the Indian market?

Cleantech is global, by nature.  For several years, we have been working internationally, though mostly focused on developed economies.  A few years ago, when developed economies were having issues with the recession, we made a strategic decision to work with a key developing economy and chose India.  There was a sound business case and good demand for our products.  We also were able to successfully work with Hari to access top level decision makers in that market.

(f) What have you learned from your work in the Indian market?

First, focus is important.  India is too vast, so we don’t have an India strategy, but rather a Maharashtra strategy.  Second, cost is important.  India really forced us to drive down our costs – the economics in India are based on volume, not margin.

We also found it important to put things in writing – as prep or follow-up to phone calls, as we had some significant noise issues, especially with poor quality phone lines.  We had a number of times where we would speak to someone on their cellphone in traffic and have difficulty picking out enough words to understand what they meant.

Lastly, we found we needed to be there, in almost constant contact in person.  We found that progress came in waves.  If you were about to go to India, were there, or had just left, there was progress; otherwise other priorities came to our customers’ minds.  We were just one of probably dozens of opportunities from Germany, France, and the US that kept coming to them.  SO we needed to go back.  And back.

(g) What kind of a market (or markets) is there for your products in Canada?

As I mentioned, a lot of our work is on making better crop protection products.  These will support the $150 billion Canadian agriculture industry, which employs one out of every seven Canadians.  We anticipate that they will result in significant environmental and waste reduction benefits.  We are also working on coatings to improve the energy efficiency of glass and improved catalysts can potentially deliver major advances in water and air purification. Canada has an environmentally-aware population and a desire to be a leader in clean technologies, so we think it’s a great place to be.

(h) Are you working on any new products or partnerships that you can discuss at this point?

One thing that we are very excited about is our anti-reflective glass coating.  It can improve light transmission noticeably.  It is a very different application from our crop protection work, but uses the same underlying technology.

(i) Is there anything you’d like to add?

Nothing I can think of.

I would like to add just a bit more about Darren Anderson. From Vive Nano’s Management Team page,

Darren Anderson, Ph.D. was the founding President of Vive Nano. Dr. Anderson currently oversees all technical direction at the company, including product development, strategic direction, and intellectual property. He is the author of 4 issued patents, 24 pending applications, 10 refereed papers, and over 40 conference presentations and publications. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto as an NSERC Doctoral Fellow.

Plus, I want to say Thank You for taking the time to answer my questions in detail that I much appreciate. I look forward to hearing more about Vive Nano in general, about the new glass coating product, and about the product safety projects with Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology and with the researchers at McGill soon.

ETA Feb.28.11: I understand from Darren Anderson that Keith Thomas, Vive Nano’s President and CEO answered some of the questions. So, thank you to Keith Thomas. Here’s his biography from Vive Nano’s Management Team web page,

Keith Thomas is a proven entrepreneur and was most recently CEO of Vector Innovations, which was backed by a number of well regarded venture firms and successfully exited. He has led a number of large-scale projects, restructuring companies in 3 countries at New York-based Tandon Capital, managing strategy and operations projects at Booz Allen & Hamilton and completing corporate finance transactions at Citibank in the US and Europe. He is a member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and holds an M.B.A. from Columbia University, an M.A. in Economics and a B.A.Sc. in Engineering from the University of Toronto.

Cleaning dirty water

Two news items about cleaning dirty water and the Canadian nanotech scene in two days! First, I got news of a Canada-China-India-Israel Roundtable on Sustainable Water Management via Nano- and Emerging Technologies held February 22-23, 2011 in Edmonton, Alberta. [Note: The information about the participant countries is directly from the ISTP website and there is no mention of the US as there is in the following article. This may be due to a late entrance to the event.] From the Feb. 22, 2011 article by Dave Cooper in the Vancouver Sun,

Canada joined hands with four other nations Tuesday in a partnership aimed at harnessing the potential of nanotechnology to improving the world’s water supply.

“Applying advanced technology to the problems of water is a serious issue. This is not a sideshow, it is a fundamental issue,” said Henri Rothschild, CEO of federally backed International Science and Technology Partnerships (ISTP) Canada.

The goal of the participants from Canada, the U.S. [?], China, India and Israel is to discuss “the real opportunities to address these challenges by pooling resources and expertise,” he said, in a spectrum from drinking and waste water to desalinization.

… with plenty of local water research underway to deal with the oilsands, funded by industry and governments, the region is now internationally recognized for its water expertise. “There are a lot of scientists and engineers here who know the subject. It’s leading edge and dealing with some very hard issues,” Rothschild said. “With this roundtable, we are trying to break new ground and create something that takes it to another level, and have it based here in Canada. This is one model under discussion,” he added.

There’s more information about the event on the ISTP roundtable wepage and, for those who are curious about the ISTP itself, here’s a description from their Who We Are page,

STPCanada was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization with the primary objective of strengthening Canada’s science and technology (S&T), business to business relations and ultimately overall economic, trade and political relations. ISTPCanada was selected by the Government of Canada, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to deliver the India, China and Brazil elements of its International Science and Technology Partnerships Program (ISTPP). Reflecting that bilateral S&T agreements are already in place with India and China, funding for these two countries was provided to ISTPCanada in April 2007, with additional funding for Brazil expected in 2008/2009 on completion of a similar bilateral agreement.

I do see the flag for the State of California on the page but it’s  not mentioned as a member of the ISTP. Perhaps they haven’t had time to update the site or they’re not sure how to add the information given that the other members are countries. Also, Brazil which is a member of the ISTP was not at the roundtable.

Getting back to the water, I had no idea the Edmonton region was internationally recognized for its expertise in water.  Meanwhile on the other side of the country, researchers from McGill University have developed a new and inexpensive way to filter water in case of emergencies. From the Feb. 23, 2011 news release,

Disasters such as floods, tsunamis, and earthquakes often result in the spread of diseases like gastroenteritis, giardiasis and even cholera because of an immediate shortage of clean drinking water. Now, chemistry researchers at McGill University have taken a key step towards making a cheap, portable, paper-based filter coated with silver nanoparticles to be used in these emergency settings.

“Silver has been used to clean water for a very long time. The Greeks and Romans kept their water in silver jugs,” says Prof. Derek Gray, from McGill’s Department of Chemistry. But though silver is used to get rid of bacteria in a variety of settings, from bandages to antibacterial socks, no one has used it systematically to clean water before. “It’s because it seems too simple,” affirms Gray.

Prof. Gray’s team, which included graduate student Theresa Dankovich, coated thick (0.5mm) hand-sized sheets of an absorbent porous paper with silver nanoparticles and then poured live bacteria through it. “Viewed in an electron microscope, the paper looks as though there are silver polka dots all over,” says Dankovich, “and the neat thing is that the silver nanoparticles stay on the paper even when the contaminated water goes through.” The results were definitive. Even when the paper contains a small quantity of silver (5.9 mg of silver per dry gram of paper), the filter is able to kill nearly all the bacteria and produce water that meets the standards set by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The filter is not envisaged as a routine water purification system, but as a way of providing rapid small-scale assistance in emergency settings. “It works well in the lab,” says Gray, “now we need to improve it and test it in the field.”

This story reminds me of an Aug. 18, 2010  news article by Lin Edwards on about ‘nano’ tea bags (excerpted from the article),

Scientists in South Africa have come up with a novel way of purifying water on a small scale using a sachet rather like a tea bag, but instead of imparting flavor to the water, the bag absorbs toxins, filters out and kills bacteria, and cleans the water.

The bag, which fits into the neck of an ordinary water bottle, was developed by scientists at Stellenbosch University in South Africa to help communities with no water purification facilities to clean their water. The bags are made of inexpensive tea bag material but instead of containing tea they contain nano-scale antimicrobial fibers that filter out contaminants and microbes, and granules of activated carbon that kill the bacteria. The nano-fibers are about one hundredth the width of a human hair.

According to researcher Marelize Botes, one sachet can clean a liter of the dirtiest water to about the same water quality of bottled water. Once the bag has been used it is discarded and a new bag is fitted in the neck of the bottle. The discarded bags have no environmental impact as they disintegrate in only a few days and the materials are not toxic to humans.

It’s hard to tell how closely related the research and initiatives are despite the fact that they’re all talking about ‘dirty water’. What I mean is that the water being discussed in the Dave Cooper article is industrial water recycled from sewage and waste, while the McGill researchers and the South African researchers are focused on drinking water that has been contaminated.

European repository of nanomaterials and first nanoparticle reference material launched

Reading up on nanotechnology sometimes feels like trying to enter a conversation that’s taking place in code. I understand the English and the overall context but the meaning of significant chunks of the conversation sometimes eludes firm grasp. It’s gotten better over the years but there were a couple of announcements from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) which taken together mildly flummoxed me.

From the Feb. 17, 2011 news item on the Science Business Bulletin,

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has launched the first European repository of nanomaterials containing 25 different types of nanomaterials. [emphasis mine] This will support safety assessments, which will help to ensure consumer protection and confidence in applications and products based on these materials.

The repository will make it possible to carry out harmonised risk assessment, ensuring standardised methodologies and materials are available, and making it possible to obtain test results that are consistent with tests carried out worldwide. The repository will also provide reliable data for policy and regulatory decision making.

The repository was set up by the JRC in response to needs for safety-assessment testing from experts in the major international standardisation bodies. It contains most types of nanomaterials currently used in significant volumes in consumer products.

Some 8,000 test samples have already been distributed to European national authorities, and EU-funded research projects, and have also been used in international scientific co-operation initiatives. The nanomaterials in the repository are produced in collaboration with the German Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology under Good Laboratory Practice conditions. The 25 types of material include carbon nanotubes, silver nanoparticles, titanium dioxide, cerium oxide, zinc oxide, bentonite, gold and silicon dioxide.

You can get more details about the repository from the Joint Research Council (JRC),

Launching the repository officially today, Elke Anklam, Director of the JRC Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP), said: “This unique repository fosters standardisation in safety assessment and facilitates innovation by creating a common and consistent measurement framework for all stakeholders. This will both support international harmonisation bodies for standardising risk assessment as well as EU policy makers for regulatory issues.”

I’m inferring from this information that using the word nanoparticle isn’t definitive and, for example, the term silver nanoparticle has been used more loosely than I was aware. So logically, the repository holds the standard by which a silver nanoparticle is measured and the 8000 samples that have been sent out from the repository ensure that major players in Europe are using the same standard when analyzing a silver nanoparticle.

Then there was another announcement from the JRC. From the Feb. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has developed the world’s first certified nanoparticle reference material based on industry-sourced nanoparticles. [emphasis mine] This new material will help ensure the comparability of measurements worldwide, thereby facilitating trade, ensuring compliance with legislation and enhancing innovation.

Nanotechnology offers a range of benefits over traditional materials and enables the development of innovative applications and products. However, there are often concerns about the safety aspects and to what extent these have been investigated. High-quality measurements are the basis for reliable safety assessments, process improvement, quality control and the development of new nanotechnology applications.

Until now, however, no certified benchmarks incorporating industrial nanoparticles were available. Some synthetic materials were available, but they were not fully representative for “real-life” measurements.

For this reason, the JRC’s Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) has produced the world’s first certified reference material based on real-world, industry-sourced nanoparticles. The material (ERM-FD100) consists of silica nanoparticles of a nominal diameter of 20 nanometers (nm). Silica nanoparticles are amongst the most widely used nanoparticles at the moment in products such as polish, whiteners and dispersants.

This material provides the basis for reliable hazard assessments and to check that nanomaterials conform to the internationally accepted definition, as laid down in the respective ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) technical specification. It will enable producers of nanoparticles to monitor production quality over time against a stable reference point, and to assess the impact of process improvements. Furthermore, the certified reference material will contribute to establishing market confidence, demonstrating that nanomaterial products meet the customers’ technical specifications.

If I understand this rightly, a new material has been created made up of silica nanoparticles with “nominal diameter of 20 nanometers” which can be used as benchmark for measuring nanoparticles of any type. What I don’t understand is the information about the nominal diameter of the silica nanoparticles. Why is this information included but no information about the size of the ‘benchmark’ material (ERM-FD100). Does the 100 stand for something? Also, if there’s a nominal diameter, doesn’t that mean the diameter of the constituent silica nanoparticles might be larger? Following that line of thought further, if the diameters vary, how can you ensure your new material is the size that you claim for it? My guess for the answer to that last question is that all measurements are subject to imperfections and that we get as accurate as we can. If anyone has any answers, thoughts, or guesses to any of my questions, please do make use of the comments section.

No! A picture is not worth 1,000 words

I’m fascinated with the ways in which data and scientific information is visualized. It’s a rich area for communication and, often, seriously undervalued. That said, the saying ‘A picture is worth  a thousand words’ is pure bunkum. There are times when pictures are better than words and there are times when you absolutely must have the words and the pictures  and there are times when all you need are the words.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, … (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Do these words need a picture? I say, no.  As for times when pictures are better than words, try putting together furniture or anything else in a kit using written instructions only. Well illustrated diagrams are all you need for something relatively simple.

Poetry and technical instructions are highly specialized instances and, in most cases, words and pictures together are best as they convey different information and reinforce each other. You need the words to supply context, while the visualization offers an experience. Take a look at this video featuring,

The winners of the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF), share spectacular photographs, graphics, illustrations and video that engage viewers by conveying the complex substance of science through different art forms.

The video presents interviews with Science News editor Colin Norman and the first-place winners, produced by Natasha Pinol and edited by Carla Schaffer of the Science Press Package. (from Youtube).

and then imagine not having a single verbal (i.e., ‘word-ridden’) explanation.

(BTW, there is a nanotechnology reference towards the end of this video.) All of this is by way of noting that the 2011 competition has been announced. From the Feb. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the journal Science created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to celebrate that grand tradition–and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is for communicating science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes.

Judges appointed by NSF and Science will select winners in each of five categories: Photography, Illustrations, Informational Posters and Graphics, Interactives Games and Non-Interactive Media. The winning entries will appear in a special section in Science and Science Online, and on the NSF website, and one of the winning entries will be pictured on the front cover. In addition, each winner will receive a one-year print and on-line subscription to the journal Science and a certificate of appreciation.

You can find guidelines and entry forms here. Interestingly there was a Feb. 12, 2011 news item on that focused on visualizing scientific data as part of the process rather than as a presentation of the results (i.e. the kind of work you’ll see in the video),

Peter Fox and James Hendler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are calling for scientists to take a few tips from the users of the World Wide Web when presenting their data to the public and other scientists in the Feb. 11 issue of Science magazine. Fox and Hendler, both professors within the Tetherless World Research Constellation at Rensselaer, outline a new vision for the visualization of scientific data in a perspective piece titled “Changing the Equation on Scientific Data Visualization.”

As the researchers explain, visualizations provide a means to enable the understanding of complex data. The problem with the current use of visualization in the scientific community, according to Fox and Hendler, is that when visualizations are actually included by scientists, they are often an end product of research used to simply illustrate the results and are inconsistently incorporated into the entire scientific process. Their visualizations are also static and cannot be easily updated or modified when new information arises.

And as scientists create more and more data with more powerful computing systems, their ability to develop useful visualizations of that data will become more time consuming and expensive with the traditional approaches.

I find this interest from scientists quite intriguing and mutual with the interest from other communities. I noted that Baba Brinkman included scientific data and visualizations as part of his performance of The Rap Guide to Evolution (Feb. 21, 2011 posting).

Recently, there was a local (Vancouver, Canada) theatrical performance that featured demographic data. Each individual is a visual, living, breathing representation of demographic data pulled from Vancouver’s most recent census. From the 2011 PUSH Festival web page for 100% Vancouver,

A Statistical Chain Reaction

One by one, 100 people enter the stage. These are not trained actors. These are everyday Vancouverites. The demographics of a city brought to life, with the stories and individuals that make up Vancouver 125 years after its official beginning. As questions are posed, the participants sort themselves according to opinions and political leanings, where they’re from, how they spend their time, car they drive, bus they take, peanut butter preference and so on. A living, breathing portrait of Vancouver emerges.

Each person represents 1% of the roughly 646,385 people residing in Vancouver. Casting starts with a single person. This first person has 24 hours to recruit the next person, who must then find the next, and so on. In just over three months, the full 100 are linked. Participants are chosen according to specific search criteria—gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, and neighbourhood in which they live—attempting to reflect the demographics of the last census.

100% Vancouver is based on an ongoing project of Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll, which has included 100% Berlin and 100% Vienna. With work like the interactive Best Before (2010 PuSh Festival), the company’s signature style draws on the perspectives of “experts in daily life” to create contemporary works where everyday people are the theatre’s real protagonists. (Note: They were last mentioned in my Feb. 1, 2010 posting [scroll down past the first few paragraphs].)

Theatre Replacement builds performances that speak to contemporary existence and investigate the events that fill our lives.

While the theatrical companies producing this show weren’t overtly interested in visualizing data, I find the approach quite appealing.

Performance, feedback, revision: Baba Brinkman’s Feb.20.11 performance

Last night (Feb.20.11) was Baba Brinkman’s first Vancouver (Canada) performance in a few years and it may be another two years or more before he’s back. His Rap Guide to Evolution shows (commissioned by a UK scientist in 2008/9) led to a soon-to-be enhanced DVD (he raised the $$$ by crowdsourcing his funding) and to an off-Broadway run in a few months (as he noted in an interview featured in my Feb.17, 2011 posting).

Couple the scarcity of local performances with the fact that Baba performs an acclaimed (sometimes controversial) peer-reviewed rap, likely the only one of its kind at this point, then throw in a legendary Vancouver music venue, The Railway Club, and you have what amounts to an irresistible invitation (in my mind anyway).

An account of events from the Feb. 20, 2011 The Rap Guide to Evolution performance at Vancouver’s Railway Club: The venerable Charles Darwin took the stage first. Dressed in clothing reminiscent of the Victorian period and carrying a book, the actor (?), gave a history of his (Darwin’s) life and his theory of evolution. (ETA Feb.23.11 via Twitter: The “actor” at my show was
Dr. Greg Bole, biology professor at UBC and sometime Darwin impersonator.)

Generally speaking I wouldn’t expect a crowd with a few beers under their collective belts to welcome a history lesson. Well, it was a friendly crowd in the first place. Many of them were friends, family, members of the Centre for Inquiry, associates of RadioFreethinker and/or CITR 101.9 FM, as well as, Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms’ fans, etc. Plus, the actor (sadly, I don’t know his name) was very good and, after a few minutes, he managed to get the audience’s full attention and the room grew quiet.

That all changed when Baba took the stage. Somewhere in there, Charles Darwin/the actor left and we embarked on The Rap Guide to Evolution. The performance’s organizing metaphor was that of a book (also, Darwin read from a book) and each chapter reveals a new rap, lecture, and/or visual. There is data, as well as, music and rhyme and, at the end, Baba provides a list of the reference books he consulted when creating the ‘guide’.

Amazingly, he pulled off a very good performance about creationism, religion, belief, social constructivism, poverty, violence, gender, dating and mating mores, and, memory fails, other stuff too. There were even graphs to illustrate his statistics along with lots of music and audience participation on such songs as ‘I am A African’ (originally by Dead Prez) and ‘Performance, Feedback, Revision’ (an original by Baba where he sums up evolution).

It’s thoughtful, provocative work.

As for Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms, I had to pass up the opportunity to hear them this time, I hope there’ll be another.

Innovation discussion in Canada lacks imagination

Today, Feb. 18, 2011, is the last day you have to make a submission to the federal government of Canada’s Review of Federal Support to Research and Development.

By the way, the  expert panel appointed and tasked with carrying out this consultation consists of:

Mr. Thomas Jenkins – Chair
Dr. Bev Dahlby
Dr. Arvind Gupta
Ms. Monique F. Leroux
Dr. David Naylor
Mrs. Nobina Robinson

They represent a mix of industry and academic representatives; you can read more about them here. You will have to click for each biography. Unfortunately, neither the website nor the consultation paper offer a list of members of the panel withbiographies that are grouped together for easy scanning.

One sidenote, big kudos to whomever decided this was a good idea (from the Review web page),

Important note: Submissions received by the panel will be made publicly available on this site as early as March 4, 2011.[emphases mine] * The name and organizational affiliation of the individual making the submission will be posted on the site; however, contact information (i.e., email addresses, phone numbers and postal addresses) will not be posted, unless that information is embedded in the submission itself.

This initiative can be viewed in two ways: (a) necessary housecleaning of funding programmes for research and development (R&D) that are not effective and (b) an attempt to kickstart more innovation, i.e. better ties between government R&D efforts and industry to achieve more productivity, in Canada. From the consultation paper‘s introduction,


Innovation by business is a vital part of maintaining a high standard of living in Canada and building Canadian sources of global advantage. The Government of Canada plays an important role in fostering an economic climate that encourages business innovation, including by providing substantial funding through tax incentives and direct program support to enhance business research and development (R&D). Despite the high level of federal support, Canada continues to lag behind other countries in business R&D expenditures (see Figure 1), and this is believed to be a significant factor in contributing to the country’s weak productivity growth. Recognizing this, Budget 2010 announced a comprehensive review of federal support to R&D in order to maximize its contribution to innovation and to economic opportunities for business. (p. 1 print;  p. 3 PDF)

I’d like to offer a submission but I can’t for two reasons. (a)  I really don’t know much about the ‘housecleaning’ aspects. (b) The panel’s terms of reference vis à vis innovation are so constrained that any comments I could offer fall far outside it’s purview.

Here’s what I mean by ‘constrained terms of reference’ (from the consultation paper),

The Panel has been asked to provide advice related to the following questions:

§ What federal initiatives are most effective in increasing business R&D and facilitating commercially relevant R&D partnerships?

§ Is the current mix and design of tax incentives and direct support for business R&D and businessfocused R&D appropriate?

§ What, if any, gaps are evident in the current suite of programming, and what might be done to fill these gaps?

In addition, the Panel’s mandate specifies that its recommendations not result in an increase or decrease to the overall level of funding required for federal R&D initiatives. (p. 3 print; p. 5 PDF)

The ‘housecleaning’ effort is long overdue. Even good government programmes can outlive their usefulness while ineffective and/or bad programmes don’t get jettisoned soon enough or often enough. If you want a sense of just how complicated our current R & D funding system is, just check this out from Nassif Ghoussoub’s (Piece of Mind blog) Jan. 14, 2011 posting,

Now the number of programs that the government supports, and which are under review is simply mind boggling.

First, you have the largest piece of the puzzle, the $4-billion “Scientific Research and Experimental Develoment tax credit program” (SR&ED), which seems to be the big elephant in the room. I hardly know anything about this program, besides the fact that it is a federal tax incentive program, administered by the Canada Revenue Agency, that encourages Canadian businesses of all sizes, and in all sectors to conduct research and development in Canada. Former VP of the NRC and former President of Alberta Ingenuity, Peter Hackett, has lots to say about this. Also on youtube.

But you don’t need to be an expert to imagine the line-up of CEOs waiting to testify as to how important these tax incentives are to the country? “Paris vaut bien une messe” and a billion or four are surely worth testifying for.

Next, just take a look (below) at this illustrative list of more directly funded federal programs. Why “illustrative”?, because there is at least one hundred more!

Do you really think that anyone of the heads/directors/presidents (the shopkeepers!) of these programs (the shops!) are going to testify that their programs are deficient and need less funding? What about those individuals that are getting serious funding from these programs (the clients!)?

Nassif’s list is 50 (!) programmes long and he suggests there are another 100 of them? Yes, housecleaning is long overdue but as Nassif points out. the people most likely to submit comment about these programmes  are likely to be beneficiaries uninclined to see their demise.

There is another problem with this ‘housecleaning’ process in that they seem to be interested in ‘tweaking’ rather than renovating or rethinking the system. Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum (Don’t leave Canada behind) blog, titled his Feb. 4, 2011 post, Innovation vs. Invention, as he questions what we mean by innovation (excerpt from his posting),

I wonder if we’ve got the whole thing wrong.

The fact is: universities don’t produce innovation. For that matter, neither does industrial R&D.

What university and industrial research produces is invention.

The Blackberry is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A new cancer-fighting drug is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A more durable prosthetic knee is not an innovation, it’s an invention.

Universities can – and do – produce inventions.

In fact, they produce inventions at an astonishing rate. University tech transfer offices (now usually branded as “centres for innovation and commercialization”) register more intellectual property than could ever be effectively commercialized.

But innovation is distinct from invention. Innovation is about process.

Innovation is about finding more efficient ways to do things. Innovation is about increasing productivity. Innovation is about creating new markets – sometimes through the commercialization of inventions.

Innovation is about the how not about the what.

Thought-provoking, yes? I think a much broader scope needs to be taken if we’re going really discuss innovation in Canada. I’m talking about culture and making a cultural shift. One of the things I’ve noticed is that everyone keeps saying Canadians aren’t innovative. Fair enough. So, how does adding another government programme change that? As far as I can tell, most of the incentives that were created have simply encouraged people to game the system, which is what you might expect from people who aren’t innovative.

I think one of the questions that should have been asked is, how do you encourage the behaviour, in this case a cultural shift towards innovation, you want when your programmes haven’t elicited that behaviour?

Something else I’d suggest, let’s not confine the question(s) to the usual players as they’ll be inclined to offer more of the same. (There’s an old saying, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

Another aspect of making a cultural shift is modeling at least some of the behaviours. Here’s something what Dexter Johnson at the Nanoclast blog (IEEE Spectrum) noticed about US President Barack Obama’s January 2011 State of the Union address in his January 28, 2011 posting,

Earlier this week in the President’s State of the Union Address, a 16-year-old girl by the name Amy Chyao accompanied the First Lady at her seat.

No doubt Ms. Chyao’s presence was a bit of stage craft to underscore the future of America’s ingenuity and innovation because Ms. Chyao, who is still a high school junior, managed to synthesize a nanoparticle that when exposed to infrared light even when it is inside the body can be triggered like a bomb to kill cancer cells. [emphasis mine] Ms. Chyao performed her research and synthesis in the lab of Kenneth J. Balkus, Jr., a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

This is a remarkable achievement and even more so from someone still so young, so we would have to agree with Prof. Balkus’ assessment that “At some point in her future, she’ll be a star.”

However, Chyao was given to us as a shining example of the US potential for innovation, and, as a result, its competitiveness. So beyond stage craft, what is the assessment of innovation for the US in a time of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology? [emphasis mine]

As President Obama attempts to rally the nation with “This is our Sputnik moment”, Andrew Maynard over on his 20/20 blog tries to work out what innovation means in our current context as compared to what it meant 50 years ago at the dawn of the space race.

Notice the emphasis on innovation. Our US neighbours are as concerned as we are about this and what I find interesting is that there glimmers of a very different approach. Yes, Chyao’s presence was stagecraft but this kind of ‘symbolic communication’ can be incredibly important. I say ‘can’ because if it’s purely stagecraft then it will condemned as a cheap stunt but if they are able to mobilize ‘enough’ stories, programmes, education, etc. that support the notion of US ingenuity and innovation then you can see a cultural shift occur. [Perfection won’t be achieved; there will be failures. What you need are enough stories and successes.] Meanwhile, Canadians keep being told they’re not innovative and ‘we must do something’.

This US consultation may be more stagecraft but it shows that not all consultations have to be as thoroughly constrained as the Canadian one finishing today.  From Mike Masnick’s Feb. 9, 2011 posting (The White House Wants Advice On What’s Blocking American Innovation) on Techdirt,

The White House website kicked off a new feature this week, called Advise the Advisor, in which a senior staff member at the White House will post a YouTube video [there’s one in this posting on the Techdirt website] on a particular subject, asking the public to weigh in on that topic via a form. The very first such topic is one near and dear to our hearts: American Innovation. [emphasis mine] …

And here is the answer I provided:

Research on economic growth has shown time and time again the importance of basic innovation towards improving the standard of living of people around the world. Economist Paul Romer’s landmark research into innovation highlighted the key factor in economic growth is increasing the spread of ideas.

Traditionally, many people have considered the patent system to be a key driver for innovation, but, over the last few decades, research has repeatedly suggested that this is not the case. In fact, patents more frequently act as a hindrance to innovation rather than as a help to it. Recent research by James Bessen & Michael Meurer (reviewing dozens of patent studies) found that the costs of patents far outweigh the benefits.

This is a problem I see daily as the founder of a startup in Silicon Valley — often considered one of the most innovative places on earth. Patents are not seen as an incentive to innovation at all. Here, patents are simply feared. The fear is that anyone doing something innovative will be sued out of nowhere by someone with a broad patent. A single patent lawsuit can cost millions of dollars and can waste tons of resources that could have gone towards actual innovation. Firms in Silicon Valley tend to get patents solely for defensive purposes.

Getting back to Dexter, there is one other aspect of his comments that should be considered, the emphasis on ’emerging technologies’. The circumstances in which we currently find ourselves are hugely different than they were during the Industrial revolution, the arrival of plastics and pesticides, etc. We understand our science and technology and their impacts quite differently than we did even a generation ago and that requires a different approach to innovation than the ones we’ve used in the past. From Andrew Maynard’s Jan. 25, 2011 posting (2020 Science blog),

… if technology innovation is as important as Obama (and many others besides) believes it is, how do we develop the twenty first century understanding, tools and institutions to take full advantage of it?

One thing that is clear is that in connecting innovation to action, we will need new insights and “intelligence” on how to make this connection work in today’s world. These will need to address not only the process of technology innovation, but also how we develop and use it within an increasingly connected society, where more people have greater influence over what works – and what doesn’t – than ever before. This was the crux of a proposal coming out of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Agenda earlier this year, which outlined the need for a new Global Center for Emerging Technologies Intelligence.

But beyond the need for new institutions, there is also the need for far more integrated approaches to building a sustainable future through technology innovation – getting away from the concept of technology innovation as something that is somebody else’s business, and making it everybody’s business. This was a central theme in the World Economic Forum report that Tim Harper of CIENTIFICA Ltd. and I published last week.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topic. Masnick did get a response of sorts to his submission about US innovation (from his Feb. 17, 2011 posting on Techdirt),

Tony was the first of a bunch of you to send over the news that President Obama’s top advisor, David Plouffe, has put up a blog post providing a preliminary overview of what he “heard” via the Ask the Advisor question, which we wrote about last week, concerning “obstacles to innovation.” The only indication that responses like mine were read was a brief mention about how some people complained about how the government, and particularly patent policy, got in the way of innovation:

Many respondents felt that too much government regulation stifled businesses and innovators and that the patent process and intellectual property laws are broken.

Unfortunately, rather than listening to why today’s patent system is a real and significant problem, it appears that Plouffe is using this to score political points for his boss …

Masnick hasn’t lost hope as he goes on to note in his posting.

For yet another perspective, I found Europeans weighed in on the innovation topic at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2011 annual meeting this morning (Feb. 18, 2011). From a Government of Canada science blog ( posting, Mobilizing resources for research and innovation: the EU model, by Helen Murphy,

EU Commission Director-General of the Joint Research Centre Robert-Jan Smits spoke about what all countries agree on: that research and innovation are essential to prosperity — not just now, but even more so in the future.

He said European leaders are voicing the same message as President Obama, who in his recent State of the Union address linked innovation to “winning the future” — something he called the “Sputnik movement of our generation.”

Smits talked about the challenge of getting agreement among the EU’s 27 member countries on a growth strategy. But they have agreed; they’ve agreed to pursue growth that is smart (putting research and innovation at centre stage), sustainable (using resources efficiently and responsibly) and inclusive (leaving no one behind and creating new jobs).

The goal is ambitious: the EU aims to create nearly four million new jobs in Europe and increase the EU’s GDP by 700 billion Euros by 2025.

What I’m trying to say is that innovation is a big conversation and I hope that the expert panel for Canada’s current consultation on this matter will go beyond its terms reference to suggest that ‘housecleaning and tweaking’ should be part of a larger initiative that includes using a little imagination.

Interview with Baba Brinkman who performs his Rap Guide to Evolution in Vancouver on Feb. 20, 2011

Peer-reviewed and rap music are terms that don’t usually go together unless you’re talking about Vancouver-based rapper, Baba Brinkman.  (ETA Feb.17.11 Baba’s website) The performer has developed a rap about evolution that’s been extensively toured in the UK. Sunday, February 20, 2011, Brinkman brings his evolution rap home to Vancouver (Canada) for a performance at the Railway Club presented by the Centre for Inquiry and others. From the event webpage,

The Centre for Inquiry Vancouver, Radio Freethinker and CiTR 101.9FM are proud to present Baba Brinkman and the Rap Guide to Evolution!

Baba brings his rationalist rap back to his home for a special show of his popular spoken word rationalist rap – The Rap Guide to Evolution! The New York Times has said that this is the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Da rwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution — how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

Baba’s work has been called:

“Brilliantly conceived and effervescently performed…not only is it factually correct, it’s also dazzlingly intelligent…after seeing this show, you’ll never look at a hip-hop music video in the same way again!” – The Scotsman

Event details:

Sunday, February 20th 2011 at 9:00 pm – 12 am
The Railway Club, 579 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver BC
Tickets: $8 at the door
Special Guests: Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms

Prior to his Sunday performance, Baba very kindly answered some interview questions:

(a) Is this the first time you’ve given a performance of ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution’ in Vancouver? And how did this performance come about?

This won’t be the Vancouver première of the Rap Guide to Evolution since I was featured as part of the 2009 Vancouver Evolution Festival with performances at UBC, SFU, and at a club venue in Gastown, but the show has evolved considerably over the past two years and it is my first performance in Vancouver since achieving any recognition for the show.  In terms of the show’s origins, I was performing a rap adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few years back and encountered a geneticist named Dr. Mark Pallen at the University of Birmingham in the UK who challenged me to “do for Darwin what I did for Chaucer”. Dr. Pallen had a grant from the British Council to organize a Darwin Day celebration in 2009 and he commissioned me to write the show for his event, and then after that I brought it to the VanEvo festival, the Cambridge Darwin Festival, the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe Festivals, and numerous college campuses, plus an off-Broadway showcase in New York, so it’s been a busy couple of years.

(b) I understand this ‘evolution’ rap was commissioned and is the only ‘science peer-reviewed’ rap in existence. How much research did you do on evolution before you started rapping about it? What did you learn that you didn’t know?

I got the commission officially in September 2008 so I had approximately five months to read-up on evolutionary theory before I started rapping about it. I read books by E O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Joseph Carroll, Dan Dennett, D S Wilson, Geoffrey Miller, and Mark Pallen’s own “Rough Guide to Evolution”. There were other books as well but those are the authors that significantly influenced the writing. What I learned is that the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory is far more vast that I had imagined when first accepting the challenge. I was familiar with evolution from taking biology and human origins courses at University, but I had never heard of Universal Darwinism or Evolutionary Psychology or Costly Signaling or any number of key concepts that ended up featuring heavily in the show.

(c) How has your rapping practice (scientific and otherwise) evolved?

My rapping practiced has evolved in the same way that everything else evolves, gradually and haphazardly in response to changing environmental circumstances. For instance, I would never have guessed when I started rapping at the age of 19 that I would end up in a science rapping niche, but each step seems to have followed effortlessly enough from the last along the way. I still attend to the same stylistic and musical concerns as before so that I keep improving my skills, but the content has taken some surprising turns. There’s an apt expression in hip-hop for this process (also the title of a Too-Short album): Get In Where You Fit In.

(d) Is there anything you’d like to add?

The Rap Guide to Evolution will be transferring to New York for an off-Broadway run in a couple of months, so come see the show while you can, since I might not be back for another two years at this rate!

I’m hoping to get there for Baba’s performance and his last comment definitely provides motivation in addition to the incentive provided by the sweet sounds of his special guests, Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms.

I have featured Baba and his work previously in these posts:

Perceptions of Promise, an art/science show at Glenbow Museum, Alberta

The art/science show, Perceptions of Promise, at Alberta’s Glenbow Museum in Calgary features stem cell research, ethics, and art. It’s the outcome of a workshop that was held May 2010 in Alberta. Here’s an image from the show,

Derek Besant, Still from Metamorphosis Theory, 2010. Copy obtained from Glenbow Museum website.

An article by Jef Akst, Controversy on display; A Canadian art exhibit takes a different look at the ongoing debate surrounding human stem cell research,  in The Scientist provides an interview with one of the organizers of the show, Timothy Caulfield, a bioethicist at the Health Law Institute of the University of Alberta,

Over the last couple of years, Caulfield [Timothy] has worked with his brother Sean, a professor of art design also at the University of Alberta, to brainstorm ways to combine their interests in art, science, and society. The brothers’ first brainchild, a 2009 art show in Alberta called Imagining Science, explored legal and ethical issues surrounding biotechnological advances, such as cloning and genetic testing

While they were happy with the exhibition’s success, they felt there were plenty more issues left to cover. “Many of the people involved thought this conversation isn’t over,” Sean says. “It’s kind of just beginning.” So they decided to do it again, this time focusing on the contentious issues surrounding stem cell research.

Following the tradition of their first exhibition, they organized a workshop that brought together scientists, social commentators, and artists to present their work and represent diverse perspectives on stem cell research.

Here’s an excerpt from a posting by one of the participants, Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor in the School of Communication at American University. (At the time of writing, his blog was called Framing Science, Nisbet has since changed his blogging focus and has moved and renamed his blog, Age of Engagement; all the archival posts for Framing Science are included.) From Nisbet’s archived May 5, 2010 posting on Age of Engagement,

Last week I traveled to the Canadian Rockies to participate in a unique workshop organized by the University at Alberta that focused on the shared perspectives and collaborations among artists, scientists, ethicists, and social scientists. The workshop was the second in a series organized by brothers Sean Caulfield and Timothy Caulfield, professors of Art and Law respectively at the University of Alberta.

In 2009, the first workshop resulted in the “Imagining Science” exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta and a book by the same title. The critically acclaimed initiative highlighted the emerging genre of “bio art,” which Tim Caulfield in his contribution to the award-winning book describes as “a field of artistic inquiry that both utilizes the techniques of biotechnology and serves as a medium of reflection on the societal implications of the research.”

Here’s an example of a collaboration from the 2010 workshop which has resulted in the Perceptions of Promise show (from the article by Jef Akst),

Paul Cassar, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who works with mouse embryonic stem cells, took an even more hands-on approach to his collaboration with artist Daniela Schlüter — he actually drew some scientific schematics from which Schlüter created her mixed media drawings.

“By no means am I a good drawer,” Cassar says. “Even my sketches could have been done better by a three year old,” he jokes. But when Schlüter overlaid her own drawings, she was able to “create this story to contrast some of these tensions [of] where we are now with this stem cell debate,” he says. “I think is a really neat example of how science can be inspiring to other creative minds.”

There’s also video of the show featuring the images,

Finally, the Perceptions of Promise website and the Glenbow Museum website.

Argento, nano, and PROOF

When the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its 2004 annual meeting in Seattle, I read the abstract for a presentation about making diagnoses from saliva. Although I never did make it to the presentation, I remained fascinated by the idea especially as it seemed to promise the end of blood tests and urine samples.  Well, the end is not quite in sight yet but a handheld diagnostic device that can make a diagnosis from a single sample of blood, urine, or saliva (!) is being made available to elite UK athletes. From the Dec. 9, 2010 news release,

A new hand-held medical device will help UK athletes reach the top of their game when preparing for upcoming sporting competitions. UK Sport, the UK’s high performance sports agency, has reached an agreement to become the first organisation to use cutting edge technology developed by Argento Diagnostics to improve training programmes for athletes.

Elite athletes will be able to monitor various proteins which reveal details about the condition of the body – known as biomarkers – before, during and after training sessions. These biomarkers can give a clear indication of their physical health and the effectiveness of a particular training programme. Everyone reacts differently to training, so understanding how activities affect the body helps ensure that athletes follow the best programmes for them and avoid injury. This is particularly important for elite level athletes, where small changes in fitness can mean the difference between success and failure.

I’m willing to bet that this initiative has something to do with the 2012 Olympic Summer Games being held in London. Still, I’m more interested in the device itself and how nanotechnology enables it (from the news release),

Argento’s portable device uses nanotechnology to analyse the sample. The sample is mixed with silver nanoparticles coated with a binding unit, an antibody, against a specific biological compound, the biomarker, which is indicative of the condition being tested for. If the biomarker is present the silver nanoparticles will stick to magnetic beads with the biomarkers sandwiched in-between.

Magnets pull these compounds into the measurement zone, where the silver nanoparticles are dislodged off, drawn down to the sensor and measured. The number of nanoparticles measured by the sensor will be directly proportional to the expressed amount of biomarker. The device can therefore quickly analyse the biomarker level and, using a computer programme, summarise it in a meaningful way on an on-screen readout.

I did manage to get some more information about the device from Argento’s company website,

For the first time ever, utilising the Argento technology we will be able to offer fully quantitative analysis of multiple analytes from a single sample in a truly portable handheld device which adds the benefits of modern mobile phone, WiFi and Bluetooth technology to store and communicate the results of the tests to maximise the impact and efficiency of testing.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about precisely how the samples are conveyed to the device for diagnostic purposes, i.e., do you spit on it, do you sprinkle it with urine, or do you stab yourself and dip the device into your blood? Yes, I suspect that medical professionals will be drawing blood or scraping your mouth with a Q-tip or getting you to donate a urine sample in the usual way and that somehow this sample  is conveyed to the device which will, an unspecified amount of time later, provide a readout. I just wish the people who put together the news release and information materials on the company’s website (BTW, the company is a spin-off from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory) had thought to add these details.

Closer to home, the PROOF (Prevention of Organ Failure) Centre of Excellence, located in Vancouver, Canada, is working on a type of test that could conceivably extend the use of devices such as Argento beyond elite athletes. The PROOF team is working on a test for individuals who have received a transplant.  If you get a new organ such as a kidney, a biopsy is required on a monthly basis for diagnostic purposes. The new PROOF test would be much less invasive, much faster and based on biomarkers, just like the tests that can be run on the Argento device. As far as I understand, the team is currently searching for capital to further develop their biomarker tests.